Sometimes a single image has more impact than a hundred tragic stories. That’s how it was with the sight of the twin towers up in flames—symbols of American achievement reduced to rubble by the actions of a small group of jehadis. And that’s how I felt when I saw the dome of the Taj Mahal hotel blazing brightly in the Bombay night.
To understand the symbolism of the old Taj is to understand the ethos of Bombay. For three decades now, Bombay has been two different cities. The Bombay of the suburbs (defined as anywhere north of Worli or perhaps Parel) is the Bombay you read about: the Bombay of the film industry, the Bombay of many of the communal riots, the Bombay of the newly prosperous professional class, the Bombay of the new malls and the flashy restaurants, the Bombay of the factories and the Bombay of the new dons whose stories so fascinate novelists and the media.
That Bombay lives dangerously. Three-and-a-half years ago, it nearly drowned when the Mithi river flooded its banks during a monsoon downpour and threatened to take back the land it had ceded to the suburbs. In the aftermath of that flood, the lights didn’t come on in many areas for three days, the traffic took weeks to recover and the carcasses of drowned buffaloes rotted on the roads of the suburbs.
But there is another Bombay. It’s what outsiders call south Bombay but which its residents maintain is the real Bombay. It’s the Bombay of old money, of Cumballa and Malabar Hill, of the towers of Nariman Point, of the Queen’s Necklace, of the colonial clubs, of the High Court, of the University and yes, of the Taj and the Oberoi.
That Bombay believed it led a charmed life. Rarely did communal riots cause blood to be spilt on its shores. Law and order was rigidly enforced. And even the gods knew when to lay off—during the great flood, the waters stopped at Worli, leaving south Bombay dry and unaffected by the mayhem.
The significance of 26/11 is that it struck at the heart of old Bombay, of south Bombay, of the Bombay of corporate certainty and old money comfort. The symbol of that Bombay was the Taj, over a century old and still one of the world’s best hotels.
When it went up in flames, so did the cosy assumptions of the Bombay elite.
By attacking south Bombay—easily the most privileged enclave in India, on par with Lutyens’ Delhi—the terrorists served notice that nothing was sacred, and that nobody was safe. No matter what we did to protect ourselves, they could stride into centers of well-protected privilege and open fire at will.
Rich Indians have always regarded deluxe hotels as their escape and refuge from the realities of India. When communal riots break out, they check into hotels, when the power fails, they move into the Oberoi and when they want a slap-up meal to cheer themselves up, they go to the Taj.
But 26/11 showed us that this last bastion of comfort and privilege was no longer the haven of security that it had always been. How can any hotel guard against men armed with assault rifles who storm its lobby and shoot its security guards? How can any of us ever go to a hotel restaurant again and not wonder when terrorists will rush in and open fire indiscriminately?
When the Taj went up in flames, so did a vision of Indian privilege.
It showed us that terrorism is the great equalizer. There maybe two Bombays, two Indias even.
But there is only one kind of terrorism. And it affects us all.
Mint Lounge columnist Vir Sanghvi is the advisory editorial director of Hindustan Times